Don’t throw your old laptop in the dumpster—here’s what to do instead
All electronics eventually go to the great big motherboard in the sky, but instead of unceremoniously sending your laptop to the city dump, give it new life by recycling or donating it. The precious metals and plastic can be extracted from your laptop and used in other applications. Or if there’s still life left in your laptop, there’s a huge chance someone else will be able to use it.
Whatever state your laptop is currently in, recycling or donating your old machine is a fantastic way to cut down on e-waste, help mitigate the ongoing chip shortage, and help out families in need. Here’s how to prepare your laptop for recycling or donation, and how to find places that will take it off your hands.
Save your files
If your old laptop has been collecting dust in your closet, chances are you might have forgotten what you have saved on it. Old pictures, music, games—files that may or may not have made it into your Google Drive at some point. Even if you are sure you don’t need anything on it, it’s always a good idea to double-check. (I recently found over 11,000 music files I had forgotten about on one of my old laptops.)
If you do find any files you’d like to keep, there are a few different ways you can go about saving them. You can use a cloud storage solution like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox if you don’t feel like messing with a physical storage device. Each has a desktop and mobile app so you can access your files from any device, and any changes you make to the files will automatically sync on your device as well.
If you need a lot of storage space, you may have to pay for a monthly subscription to each of those services. (You get only 5GB of free space with OneDrive and Dropbox, but Google gives you 15GB free to start.) If that doesn’t sound appealing, consider buying an external HDD or SSD. This pocket-sized Seagate Portable 1TB external HDD, for instance, is $49.99 and ends up costing less than those cloud storage services after a few months.
Not only is this a better value, but there’s less hassle transferring your files to a new computer. You won’t have to mess with installing apps or rely on your internet connection to upload the files to the cloud and then sync those files to your computer—just plug in the external drive, highlight all the files, and then drag them to a new folder on your Desktop. Bam, done!
Now that you’ve backed up all the files you want to keep, it’s time to wipe your computer clean. Fortunately, this is a lot easier (and more secure) than dumping everything into the Trash Bin or manually deleting your browser cookies that save log-in and credit card information. Each operating system has its hard reset button, so to speak. All you need to do is find it, hit it, and your computer will take care of the rest.
For Windows 10 and 11 users, the process is exactly the same:
- Use the search feature in the Taskbar to type in Reset, and then click on Reset this PC > Get Started under Reset this PC > Remove everything > Local Reinstall.
- You can also choose Cloud download if you want a fresh copy of Windows instead of the locally available copy.
Both of these methods will wipe everything from your computer and reset the entire operating system. However, this method doesn't actually modify the disk sectors containing the data in any way, so someone could recover your data with the right software. If this concerns you:
- Select Change settings after you click on one of the two reinstall options, and then toggle the Clean data switch to Yes.
It will take longer to reset your PC, but it’s much more secure as this process fully reformats the storage drive. It passes over the data several times, writing 0s and other random numbers to every sector so a data recovery tool won’t be able to read what was once on the drive.
Depending on which macOS version you have, and if your Mac device has an Intel chip or Apple’s M1 chip, this process has different methods.
Let’s start with M1 devices running macOS Monterey:
- First, click on the Apple menu icon in the top left corner of your screen, select System Preferences > Erase All Content and Settings.
- Enter your administrator credentials, and then use the Time Machine to backup your files if you didn’t do that already. If you did, skip that step and click on Continue.
- The system will ask again for confirmation that you want to completely wipe your PC and reset the operating system—click Continue > Erase All Content & Settings. Let your computer do its thing.
- If you’re asked to join a Wi-Fi network as part of the reset process, go ahead and do that and then click Reset once your computer says your Mac is activated.
Next up are Intel-based Macs and/or Macs running macOS Catalina or earlier:
After you backup the files you want to keep, you’ll want to deauthorize or sign out of any Apple programs, like iTunes, iCloud, and iMessage.
- For iTunes: Open the program, click on Account > Authorizations > Deauthorize This Computer. Enter your Apple ID and password and click Deauthorize to confirm. (If you have macOS Catalina or later, skip this step.)
- For iCloud: Click on the Apple menu icon > System Preferences > Apple ID. Select Overview in the sidebar, then click Sign Out.
- If you have macOS Mojave or earlier, select the Apple menu icon > System Preferences > iCloud > Sign Out.
- For iMessage: Open the Messages app, then choose Messages > Preferences. Click iMessage > Sign Out. (This is the same process regardless of what macOS version you have.)
Next, reset the NVRAM. This will clear your user settings from memory and restore security features that might have been changed.
- Shut down your Mac, then turn it on and immediately press and hold the Option, Command (⌘), P, and R keys for 20 seconds.
Now, unpair Bluetooth devices you want to use with another computer. (Optional)
- Apple icon > System Preferences > Bluetooth > Remove (x) next to the device(s) you want to unpair.
Erase your Mac and reinstall macOS with the Disk Utility.
- To access the Disk Utility, turn off your Mac, then turn it on again and immediately press and hold the Command (⌘) and R keys until you see an image like an Apple logo.
- Enter your administrator password if asked, then click on Disk Utility > Continue > Macintosh HD > Erase.
- Type in the following: Under Name, Macintosh HD; Under Format: APFS or Mac OS Extended (Journaled).
- Click Erase or Erase Volume Group. (Depending on your macOS version, the button will say one or the other.)
- Enter your Apple ID if asked, and then delete any other internal volumes from the sidebar if necessary.
- Quit Disk Utility to return to the utilities window. If you want to reinstall macOS, click Reinstall > Continue and follow the onscreen instructions.
For other reinstallation options, visit Apple’s website.
Compared to Windows and macOS, ChromeOS has the simplest reset process.
- Sign out of your Chromebook.
- Press and hold Ctrl, Alt, Shift, and R.
- Select Restart > Powerwash > Continue.
- Let your Chromebook do its thing—that’s it!
All Google profiles and settings will be removed, and the next account to sign into the freshly power-washed device will become the new owner account.
If you have a laptop that’s more than five years old or has a lot of wear and tear, recycling it might be the best option—and there are lots of e-waste recycling options. You can take your old laptop to Best Buy, which operates a robust recycling program. Laptop manufacturers like Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and HP also have recycling programs, and sometimes will recycle your old laptop for free. (Along with many other types of electronics.)
You can also use services like Earth911 and the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA) Greener Gadgets program to find a recycling center near you.
If you have a newer laptop or an older one in great condition, consider donating it. It could be as simple as handing it down to your kid, but there are local, national, and international organizations like human-I-T, the World Computer Exchange, Computers with Causes, and Digitunity that supply at-risk students and families with working laptops.
One thing to keep in mind is while some non-profits will repair donated electronics before giving them away, others require donated devices to be in working order. If it would cost you more to repair your old laptop before giving it away, recycling is probably the better option.
Why donate or recycle?
Electronic waste is hazardous to our health. The average person may not come into contact with it, but for the millions of people around the world who informally process e-waste, their health is at risk.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “As many as 12.9 million women are working in the informal waste sector, which potentially exposes them to toxic e-waste and puts them and their unborn children at risk.” More than 18 million children and adolescents who also work in the same sector—some as young as five years old—are at risk for “changes in lung function, respiratory and respiratory effects, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function,” and other chronic diseases later in life.
Statistics released by the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), which is developed and supported by UNU-ViE Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE), United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar), and The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), showed 53.6 metric tonnes (Mt), or about 118,167.8 pounds of e-waste was generated globally in 2019—but only 17.4% of that (9.32 Mt) was collected and recycled properly.
That means 44.28 Mt of e-waste was improperly disposed of—and a significant proportion of that e-waste, according to the WHO, “is exported from high-income countries to low- and middle-income countries, where there may be a lack of regulation, or where regulation does exist, it may be poorly enforced.” 6.7 Mt of that improperly disposed of e-waste during 2019 was screens and monitors, which included laptops.
It’s not all bad news—the GESP also discovered that the same 17.4% of e-waste prevented “as much as 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.” If more e-waste is properly disposed of, not only could fewer people be at risk from job-related health issues, but it could also help curtail climate change.